Sunday, March 15, 2009

Terry Pratchett: Going Postal

Terry Pratchett's's Going Postal is another in Pratchett's Discworld series. I've only read a handful of these stories, but they've all been fun, lightweight fantasies that explore greater and lesser societal issues in a skew universe.

In this story, Pratchett looks at competition in business and the effect of the competent entrepreneur. Okay, you'd be unlikely to see it that way if you read the book, but those are the themes that I extracted from the story. Lord Vetinari wants to rejuvenate the Ankh-Morpork postal service, and he needs a motivated, creative manager to manage it. He plucks Moist von Lipwig from the scaffold and makes him an offer he can't refuse. Moist turns out to be very creative; his history as a schemer and con artist having prepared him to read people on the spot and make up convincing stories which he can fill in the details of later when he figures out which direction he's going to take the scam.

In this case, Moist is going up against the corrupt monopoly that runs a private semaphore-based messaging system that is closer to a telegraph than a message carrier. The Grand Trunk also has labor relations problems, since their lack of attention to maintenance issues has led to a surfeit of injuries and deaths among the employees. Moist is able to out-compete the Grand Trunk in order to regain the customer base the official post office lost long ago and use an occasional bit of sabotage to reduce the Grand Trunk's ability to stay in the game.

In the end, Moist resurrects the post office by acting as the nimble entrepreneur (with a side of underhandedness) in competition with an entrenched bureaucracy. He has enough obstacles (decades of undelivered mail piled up in the post office, attacks by the competition) and humanity (pursuing a surprising love interest) to be a sympathetic character. Pratchett turns the competitive environment on its head, but I think most readers will see that it's normally government monopolies that are resistant to change, and the story shows that it's the stodginess and resistance to change that lead to poor service. If the competitors have the ability to try new things (normally, not including violence and sabotage), the customers come out ahead, and competition improves all of the enterprises touched by it.

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